From the Middle to the End
The Middlesteins: A Novel
by Jami Attenberg
Grand Central Publishing, 288 pp., $24.99
Fiction can provide emotional solace, historical knowledge, a hedge against loneliness, or, simply, pleasure. In The Middlesteins, Jami Attenberg reminds us of another function of literature: It can reduce the enormity of a human life to insignificance, the equivalent of looking at the stars for too long. She accomplishes this through the use of flash-forwards, and they are devastating.
But—and this may surprise—The Middlesteins is a great, light read, a real page-turner. Edie and Richard Middlestein settle in Chicago's suburbs. They go to synagogue and have a group of similarly Midwestern, middle-class Jewish families as friends. They raise two children, Robin and Benny. Richard is a passively successful pharmacist, and Edie works at a law firm, doing endless pro bono work for the needy and her friends.
Edie also eats. And eats. And eats. So much so she is laid off by her law firm and develops diabetes and heart problems. The chapter titles signal shifts in chronology by tracking Edie's weight: "Edie, 241 Pounds" comes before "Edie, 160 Pounds," and "Edie, 332 Pounds" is toward the beginning of the novel. Her family realizes that she is slowly killing herself, but Edie refuses to stop eating. Richard calls it quits, leaving Edie for a new, single life that he hopes includes sex, something he has not had in quite some time. The children are shocked by their father's betrayal, and, siding with Edie over their father, all but banish him from their lives. Benny and his wife Rachelle step in to help Edie cope; Robin reluctantly agrees to visit once a week.